The defeat of Thabo Mbeki, 13 years after the ANC came to power in South Africa’s first democratic elections, began a new era.
The scene last December was unbelievable. As Mosiuoa “Terror” Lekota, South Africa’s defence minister and chairman of the African National Congress, tried to get the party’s 52nd national conference in Polokwane under way, most of the 4,000 delegates made his task impossible for 20 minutes.
Every time he tried to rally them by shouting the anti-apartheid struggle cry Amandla (freedom), most delegates failed to respond with Awethu. Instead, contrary to the strict rules established before the conference, the vocal supporters of Jacob Zuma sang the militant Zulu struggle song that Zuma made his own on the campaign trail for his election as president of the ANC, Umshini wam. The conference calmed down only after the incumbent secretary-general, Kgalema Mothlanthe, stepped in.
In this performance, scarcely seen in the 96-year history of the ANC and certainly not since 1994, the stage was set for the drama that humiliated South Africa’s president Thabo Mbeki and his inner circle in the elections for the new ANC leadership. The reason why delegates rounded on Lekota was simple: over the preceding months he had often publicly clashed with Zuma and his supporters. Mothlanthe had wisely stayed out of the intense race between Mbeki and Zuma for the ANC presidency, agreeing to stand as deputy president in the Zuma team.
Eventually just over 60 per cent of the delegates voted for Zuma and his team in the top six positions, and the Zuma camp also won most of the seats on the party’s 80-member National Executive Committee. Several senior members of the Mbeki inner circle, many of them cabinet ministers, failed to get elected to the NEC. These included the country’s deputy president, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, appointed by Mbeki in June 2005 in the place of Zuma, who was fired after allegations of corruption linked to an arms deal.*
There was a seismic shift in South African politics between December 16 and 20, 2007. The ANC became the first former liberation movement in Africa democratically to replace its own leadership while still in government. But this is not the whole story.
What is remarkable is that Zuma, a former peasant and migrant labourer from rural Nkandla in KwaZulu-Natal, who only matriculated between 1963 and 1974 during incarceration on Robben Island for “conspiring to overthrow the [apartheid] government”, won his victory after being found not guilty on a charge of rape in April 2006.
Most of the state and private media was against Zuma, whereas Mbeki, as president (and with an MA in economics from the University of Sussex), had state resources at his disposal and the backing of South African big business. Under his stewardship the country had had nine consecutive years of economic growth, and a growth rate of nearly 5 per cent in 2006.
How did Zuma achieve his victory, and what does it mean for the future of South Africa? We have to go back to the period of political transition between 1990 and 1994. After the ANC and other anti-apartheid organisations were legalised on February 2, 1990, the ANC succeeded in convincing all anti-apartheid organizations to give it a mandate to negotiate with the National Party for a new democratic dispensation.
In return the ANC was supposed to negotiate a new economic and social policy to help poor, mostly black, South Africans, more than 60 per cent of the population. This was no mean feat, for the ANC neither had the biggest membership of the anti-apartheid movements (the federation of trade unions, Cosatu, did), nor was it as well organized as other organizations that did not go into exile, such as the United Democratic Movement.
At first the ANC adopted the pro-poor Reconstruction and Development Program. But during 1996, under pressure from South African business, the Mbeki inner circle, firmly in control of the ANC and the tripartite alliance with Cosatu and the South African Communist Party, adopted the pro-business, neo-liberal GEAR economic policy. This was done without serious consultation in the party or the alliance; Mbeki’s finance minister, Trevor Manuel, later called GEAR non-negotiable. Mbeki also promoted GEAR because he gambled that the creation of a black middle-class would be a key to stability. The policies of black economic empowerment and affirmative action were central to this.
But 10 years later the economic achievements of the Mbeki inner circle are questionable. Despite creating a few black billionaires and an arguably limited middle-class, poverty levels in South Africa remain at between 45 per cent and 50 per cent, while the gap between rich and poor, and especially between black rich and poor, is now one of the highest in the world.
While the rise in commodity prices due to Chinese and Indian economic expansion has fuelled South African growth and allowed the government to pay grants to between 8 and 10 million, the risks remain high. This social support will be difficult to maintain if commodity prices collapse, and little has been done to increase the self-sufficiency of the poor. Meanwhile 98 per cent of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange is still white-controlled and the country is as dependent as ever on foreign investment.
The Mbeki government has insisted on chasing inflation targets set in 2000, which leftwing analysts argue are no longer appropriate, especially after the rise in imports because of preparations for the Soccer World Cup in 2010. Interest rates have been raised five times in the past two years, and at 14.5 per cent, with more rises in the offing, they are a severe burden on the poor as well as the middle-class. South Africa’s manufacturing capacity continues to shrink, and now contributes barely 16 per cent of GDP according to September 2007 figures.
Service delivery in South Africa continues to deteriorate (during the week of the ANC conference more than 2,000 poor people in rural Standerton got diarrhoea, probably from poor quality water), and crime remains high. According to the government, at least 33 per cent of municipalities are “facing serious financial difficulties or administrative problems”.
The country also has a critical skills shortage that has been worsened by affirmative action, which has contributed to some one million white South Africans moving abroad.
In July 2007 the East London newspaper the Daily Dispatch, which has a proud anti-apartheid record, found that in the past 14 years up to 2,000 had died in the Mount Frere hospital in the Eastern Cape Province, mostly due to poor service at the hospital (the government denied this and fired the whistle-blowers) . When the minister of health was exposed as a “drunk and a thief”, Mbeki’s close ally and minister in the presidency, Essop Pahad, threatened the Sunday Times with withdrawal of government advertising. (On 29, 2007 the Sunday Times published evidence that the minister of health was fired from the Athlone hospital in Botswana in the mid-1970s for stealing from a patient, and that she has a serious drinking problem that might have contributed to her recent liver transplant.)When the director of the National Prosecuting Agency, Vusi Pikoli, was ready to arrest a close Mbeki ally and national commissioner of police, Jackie Selebi, on charges of corruption, Pikoli was suspended.
Mbeki established an arrogant, centralistic style of government that alienated many ANC supporters; the Aids lobby, headed by the Treatment Action Campaign; the opposition parties; and minorities, including the Afrikaners, whose grievances on Afrikaans education, labour discrimination and place names are seldom addressed.
Something had to give. Zuma and his team, with a well-organized campaign, obtained nearly 66 per cent of the nominations for the ANC conference.
Zuma, who had a central role in bringing peace to KwaZulu-Natal in the early 1990s and to Burundi in the late 1990s, has a reputation as a negotiator. But at least four serious challenges await him in the near future.
While Zuma and his team now control the ANC, Thabo Mbeki still has 18 months left as president. In his first interviews after the ANC conference, Mbeki was in a fighting mood, claiming (incorrectly) that the president of the ANC “does not necessarily become the candidate [for president of the country]”; the recent conference had adopted a resolution that “the ANC president shall be the candidate of the movement for [the country’s] president”.
Zuma is faced with the challenge of rebuilding unity in the ANC and pleasing his divergent groups of supporters including Cosatu and the SACP, who will demand more pro-poor policies, while South African business and foreign investors will be watching to see whether the neo-liberal dogma is threatened.
In August Zuma will have to face corruption charges in court, some of them related to the arms deal (see opposite, “Jacob Zuma: president or prisoner?”). Already Cosatu has threatened mass action if he is charged.
Zuma’s greatest challenge relates to the relationship between the ANC and the rest of South Africa. The ANC might never have experienced its current problems if it wasn’t for its lack of ideas–wavering economically between neo-liberalism and outdated centralistic economic policies. Culturally, the party’s nationalism was unsuited for a diverse country like South Africa. The ANC is the historical counterpart of the now deceased National Party, and very much yesterday’s party. It is inevitable that it will rupture and that a debate on a South Africa with more community-oriented economic and cultural policies will begin.
* Footnote: In 1997, despite huge opposition inside the ANC and its two alliance partners, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party (SACP), as well as from opposition parties and civil society, the South African government agreed to purchase arms from European manufacturers for R20bn (rand), a figure since revised to R60bn. Serious claims of corruption against senior ANC members, including the previous minister of defense, have never been properly investigated by the government, which neutered parliament’s own committee investigating the deal.
Johann Rossouw is editor of the Afrikaans edition of Le Monde diplomatique. This article first appeared in the excellent monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com The full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique and CounterPunch will feature one or two articles from LMD every month.
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